Health Opinion

Cat bites can be more dangerous than you think

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If you see cats fighting, it's best to keep away (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Warning, if you own cats or have neighbourhood felines, you may not be aware of the significant consequences of a cat bite.

After six visits to the emergency department, three different antibiotics and countless dressing changes at a nearby medical clinic, the cat bite I suffered on Boxing Day is still not healed. 

As a result of the bite, I have a bacterial infection known as Pasteurella multocida. According to the National Library of Medicine, exposure can lead to rapidly progressing soft tissue, respiratory or other serious invasive infections such as bacteremia, meningitis and endocarditis. 

According to the Library of Medicine, approximately 300,000 patients in the U.S. are seen annually in emergency departments for animal scratches or bites. Pasteurella multocida is the pathogen most commonly associated with infection in these patients.

Australian research on Pasteurella bloodstream infections (BSI) is sparse. A study of Queensland BSI infections from 2000-2019 provides limited evidence of the incidence.

Pasteurella species are part of the normal flora of the mouth and upper respiratory tract of many animals including cats.

An infection can develop within 24 hours of the injury. Swelling around the injury, tenderness and purulent drainage is characteristic. Cellulitis may develop within one or two days.   

As if the list isn’t bad enough, osteomyelitis or septic arthritis may develop, plus pneumonia and sepsis.

On the fateful day, my neighbour’s cat strolled past our backyard fence peering in at my two Burmese cats who became deeply concerned by its presence.

From the verandah on the second floor of our house, I heard the sounds of a cat fight and when I looked down I could see a most vicious fight happening between my two 15-year-old, normally peaceful cats, no doubt stressed after sighting the stranger. 

I threw things at them, but nothing worked. So I raced downstairs, out to the lawn where they were fighting and tried to separate two screaming cats. Instead, I collected the worst blow, claws and teeth tearing into my left leg, an injury that would likely have killed or severely injured the cat it was destined for.

Blood poured down my leg and ran into my shoe. The cats kept snarling, I separated them and dragged myself inside, upstairs to the bathroom and first aid kit, trying to staunch the blood while not looking at my awful shin wounds.

I cleaned the wound with alcohol swabs and slapped some alginate (seaweed plaster) on the wounds trying to make sense of what had happened.

As someone who has run an animal welfare and environmental charity for over 30 years, I should have used my common sense and thrown water over the cats. Instead, I did the worst thing imaginable — although I think I probably saved one cat’s life as the other was intent on real injury.

After I’d calmed down and the wounds were starting to ache and bleed, it seemed only prudent to go to the emergency department at my local hospital which will remain anonymous.

Christmas and New Year are the worst times to go to the emergency department. Holidaymakers, illegal doofs, festivals, drunk, drugged drivers and overseas visitors all add to the burden of any regional hospitals. So waiting time can be a test of patience and endurance as experienced in city emergency departments.

I was fortunate. I only waited for 15 minutes, the emergency doctor gave me a tetanus shot, prescribed antibiotics, dressed the wound and told me his family history. Aside from the caution to not swim or shower for a few days, I learned nothing about potential complications.

 

I had a visit mid-week to the local medical clinic to have the dressing changed.  The wounds look awful, potentially more infected. 

Four days later, it was obvious the wounds weren’t healing. Back to emergency. This time, a new doctor took a swab and gave me a different antibiotic prescription. He indicated some relief that I didn’t have any symptoms of cat scratch disease — yet another potential complication of a cat bite.

But I should watch out for any fever, swelling of the leg or red streaks and come back if needed.

Forty-eight hours later, I woke up at 4:30 AM feeling like death. I called emergency and was told to come in. I got there around 5:00 AM, just in time for a big influx of partygoers throwing up, feeling injured and deathly ill, together with other injured folks. I waited for four hours and decided to go home and die rather than expire in emergency.

It was a public holiday on New Year’s Day, so I saw a GP on Tuesday when he had a quick check of the injury. Not my usual GP. 

I asked if the swab result had come back. No. So I suggested maybe he could call the hospital and get results.

No — leave it for 48 hours and the result will come through by then.

I went home, called the hospital and was told that yes, I did have an infection and none of the antibiotics I was prescribed are sensitive to the bacteria. I needed a new script.

Back to the local clinic. I managed to see my GP this time. He called the hospital and got the results. A new antibiotic was prescribed. 

By this time, as an investigative journalist, I had trolled every bit of information on cat bites on the 'net, undertaken the most intensive research on this infection and frightened the shit out of myself.  As my closest friend (married to a doctor in San Francisco) said: “You could die!”

What a way to spend a two-week break. A dedicated swimmer, my early morning swim in the sea was my heaven. The latest antibiotic warns the taker not to go out in the sun thus creating increased levels of sensitivity to ultraviolet rays A and B. 

An article focused on the drug indicates when ultraviolet A and B rays come in contact with your skin, they can cause damage at the DNA level.

Once you stop using the drug, it can take weeks for the photosensitivity to disappear. 

Any dairy product needs to be avoided for two hours post-dosing. And you can’t lie down for an hour after taking it because it might irritate your throat. Some directions say no lying down for 30 minutes. 

As the days progressed, the wounds either looked better or worse, necessitating more visits to emergency and the local clinic. 

I learned lots from this experience. Most cat owners are unaware of the dangers cat bites can cause, in particular, as dog bites are not as toxic. 

If you do sustain an injury, make sure you get it swabbed so that any infection can be rapidly detected. Get the results as soon as possible. Nag. Take matters into your own hands if necessary.

Don’t mess around if you have any symptoms – particularly fever or swollen lymph glands – or the wound keeps seeping.

Learn to love walking around shops and cafes wrapped up in scarves and hats. Long pants and long-sleeved tops with shoes and socks can look startling in summer.

Try not to feel jealous of people who swim.

Do not get involved in cat fights. Throw water or hose them.  

Do I still love my cats? Yes, but the next time they fight, it’s their problem.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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